EDITOR’S NOTE: We asked Kathy Gunst for her take on the question, “What is local?”
Where I grew up in suburban New York in the 1970s, we used the word “local” all the time. As in, “Where d’ya get that corned beef sandwich?” “At the local deli, where else?” Or, “Can you stop at the local grocery store in town to pick up milk?” In those days “local” meant neighborhood; it referred to convenience, not to where the food was grown.
If the television series “Mad Men” took place today, Don Draper and his cronies would sell cars, tobacco and airlines as being “local products you can trust.”
Local has a very different meaning today, at least when it comes to food. Like other terms, such as “organic” and “natural,” “local” lets consumers know that the food they are buying was made responsibly. But what does local really mean? It suggests that the food was raised somewhere nearby.
The key word here is “somewhere.” How far away is somewhere? How close? If I buy Maine potatoes at a supermarket near where I live in the southern part of the state – more than 300 miles from Aroostook County where those potatoes were grown – are they still local? Aren’t potatoes grown in New Hampshire or even northern Massachusetts – places that are actually closer to my home – the truly local product?
Like the Peter, Paul, and Mary song, how many miles are too many? One hundred? Five hundred? Who can say?
It wasn’t all that long ago – before the days of refrigeration and cross-country trucks and food being flown across the globe – that local food was the only food available. You ate what grew near where you lived. It wasn’t trendy or quaint. It didn’t cost more. If anything, the opposite was true. Chocolates from France. Orange marmalade from England. Oo la la. Now that was fancy.
Mainers have always been inventive about preserving the harvest. Pickles, canned foods, frozen garden vegetables allow many of us to eat locally year round. But if you take the locovore concept literally, Mainers can’t use olive oil or citrus, or eat avocados or bananas. No pineapple or papaya either. So what’s a food-conscious Mainer to do?
For the last eight years, the Seacoast Slow Food chapter, which includes seacoast New Hampshire and southern Maine, has held a Thanksgiving potluck. It started out as the 100-Mile Thanksgiving, because everyone brought a dish that included ingredients sourced within 100 miles. Then it became the 50-Mile Thanksgiving, and recently the event was changed to the 25-Mile Thanksgiving. Why? Because it’s possible. Local farmers have found ways to extend the season using greenhouses and cold frames and planting cold-weather crops. Winter farmers’ markets mean that eating local – even during the coldest months – is increasingly viable.
Local food hits its high point in Maine during the harvest, in late September and early October. When my family sits down to a completely local meal, I feel a deep sense of satisfaction. “Wow, look at this food! All of it from our garden. All of it grown in Maine,” I tell my family, sounding like an ad campaign. When my daughters were in their teens they would get so impatient. “Yeah, Mom, we know it’s local. Cool. Can we just eat now?” Today, both in their twenties and living in food-loving cities far from Maine, they shop at farmers’ markets and look for locally grown food. Cool indeed.
I strive to eat as locally as possible – year-round. My commitment includes growing a large vegetable garden, joining a neighbor’s CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), supporting farmers’ markets year-round, and buying meat from local farms and seafood from Maine waters. When we eat locally we are doing more than enjoying the freshest food possible. Eating locally means supporting local agriculture, and shifting dollars from chain supermarkets to local growers.
I have a friend, a young farmer, who leases land to grow extraordinary vegetables and salad and cooking greens. He has had huge success at local farmers’ markets. That piece of land provides a source of income for him. Beyond that, it will stay farmland – and not be turned into a subdivision – because people care about where their food was grown.
We have a neighbor who lives about a half-mile down the street who raises lamb. Every year, sometime in mid-October, she rings our doorbell, with a whole, skinned, still vibrantly pink animal slung over her small, muscular shoulder. Working with a friend (who happens to be an artisinal – another buzzword – butcher) we cut up the lamb, wrap it in white butcher paper, and freeze it to last the whole winter. But that night I always leave out a few chops to grill over an open fire with garlic, mint and rosemary from my garden. Eating that lamb, whose street address is/was the same as mine is one of the great culinary treats of the year. Is it better than the lamb I ate in Iceland years ago that was so extraordinarily tender I didn’t need a knife to cut it? Maybe not, but to me it tastes like the best lamb in the whole world.
What does local food mean to you? How do we create guidelines that define the word? Do we involve government and start passing laws defining local food the same way we did with organic? And if we decide that local food is food grown within 50 miles of where it’s bought, what happens to food grown 51 or 52 miles away? These are difficult questions, but they’re questions worth asking, and it’s a conversation that’s sure to unfold.